German: Will you stop talking about the war!
Basil: Me? You started it!
German: We did not start it.
Basil: Yes you did, you invaded Poland...
- Series 1: 'The Germans'
Basil (to Manuel): Well, of course it's a rat! You have rats in Spain, don't you - or did Franco have them all shot?
- Series 2: 'Basil the Rat'
Obnoxious American: Could you make me a Waldorf salad.
Basil: Oh... a... Wa...?
Obnoxious American: Waldorf salad.
Basil: I think we're just out of Waldorfs.
- Series 2: 'Waldorf Salad'
Fawlty Towers, one of the best-known comedy programmes of all time, is still immensely popular 35 years after its debut in 1975. Written by John Cleese and Connie Booth, it features Cleese as rude hotelier Basil Fawlty, who has to put up with all kinds of people who get in the way of his running of the hotel... including his wife Sybil (Prunella Scales) and the guests that his establishment attracts, no matter how hard he tries to keep them out.
There are four main characters throughout the entire series - Basil and Sybil Fawlty, Manuel, and Polly. However, there are also minor characters that show up in nearly every episode, such as the Major (Ballard Berkeley), whose die-hard devotion to Fawlty Towers makes one wonder at his mental integrity, and Misses Tibbs and Gatsby (Gilly Flower and Renee Robert) two old ladies who fancy Basil, but they are not as well developed nor as important to the story lines as the major four.
Basil Fawlty (John Cleese)
The character of Basil Fawlty is inspired by real-life hotelier Donald Sinclair, of the Gleneagles Hotel in the Torquay area of south-west England. His behaviour while the Pythons were staying at his hotel for the filming of an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus is now legendary. He complained about the American way that Terry Gilliam used his knife and fork (and would snatch his knife away when Gilliam put it down, saying 'we don't eat like that here!'). He nearly refused to call a taxi for John Cleese, and he threw Eric Idle's suitcase over the cliff after hearing the ticking alarm clock inside - Sinclair believed that one of his employees had hidden a bomb there. In Graham Chapman's book A Liar's Autobiography, Donald Sinclair is described as 'completely round the twist... out of his tree' (Sinclair himself died in 1981, presumably unaware of the monster he had spawned...).
Because of the manager's excessive impudence, the other Pythons soon transferred to another hotel, while continuing their filming. John Cleese, however, stayed on to observe this obnoxiously interesting character, originally intending notes on his behaviour for another Python sketch. Cleese also got his then-wife, Connie Booth, to stay at the hotel as well.
A Python sketch featuring a truly Sinclair/Basil Fawlty character was never written; however, in 1973 (before Fawlty Towers) Cleese wrote an episode for London Weekend Television's Doctor at Large series that featured a Basil-esque hotel manager (this episode was entitled 'No Ill Feelings'). An entire series with this odd character at its centre, however, didn't arrive to the unsuspecting public until two years later, in 1975.
Basil Fawlty is a 'screamer'; when everything goes wrong (which happens rather often), his blood pressure rises1 and he begins to yell2. Usually, his wife Sybil can get him under control again with a sharp 'Basil!' - he doesn't particularly like his wife (referring to her affectionately as his 'little nest of vipers'), but he is very dependent on her nonetheless:
'I think Sybil is much stronger and more independent than Basil. She could really function very well if Basil buzzed off or fell under a bus. I don't think Basil could. He's very much more dependent on Sybil and that's why he is so frightened of her.
- John Cleese
It is Basil's problems and mistakes that most episodes of Fawlty Towers focus on, and it is his insane reactions to them that produces much of the comedy.
Sybil Fawlty (Prunella Scales)
Connie and I had a different conception - I can't remember now through the mists of time what it was - but we had a different conception of [Sybil Fawlty] from the way Pru [Scales] played it at the first read-through. We were a bit worried, but then after a couple of days we actually saw that what she was doing was better.
- John Cleese
Sybil Fawlty is intelligent and less class-obsessed than Basil, but it is hard to like her, despite the fact that in most of their arguments, Sybil would appear to be right. People end up sympathising more with Basil because of what he puts up with from her; she is over-domineering, bossy, and can't seem to stop undermining her husband.
If Basil is considered the protagonist of this series, it falls to Sybil to be the antagonist. His fear of her drives him to hide his actions, and of course the results are always worse when he attempts to hide them. Truly, there really is no particular 'protagonist' or 'antagonist' that can be labelled in any Fawlty Towers episode - all the characters' actions further the comedy and aren't really important past that.
Manuel (Andrew Sachs)
Manuel is the Spanish help from Barcelona. He was hired because he was cheap, and both of the Fawltys believe that it would have been quicker to train a monkey. Nevertheless, he is the most endearing character on the show. His lack of English skill is a running joke in Fawlty Towers, and his bewildered 'Qué?' has become a catch-phrase.
Mrs Richards: I've booked a room with a bath and a sea view.
Mrs Richards: K?
Mrs Richards: C?
Manuel: No. Qué, 'what.'
Mrs Richards: K. Watt?
Manuel: Sí - Qué, 'what.'
Mrs Richards: CK Watt? Is he the manager?
Manuel: Ah! Manaher! Mr Fawlty.
Mrs Richards: This man is telling me the manager is a CK Watt, aged forty.
Manuel: No, Fawlty.
Mrs Richards: Faulty? Why? What's wrong with him?
- Series 2: 'Communication Problems'
Manuel is the butt of the physical comedy in the show, and has scars today to prove it. During the kitchen fire scene in season one's 'The Germans', he was actually burned across his head and shoulders from a jacket treated by the special effects department with acid (he was paid £700 for damages), and during the filming of another episode, was left woozy for two days after being hit too hard by a frying pan. Andrew Sachs was paid £150 for the first season and £300 for the second (John Cleese received £1,000 and £9,000 respectively).
Polly Sherman (Connie Booth)
Polly is the one sane person on the team - she goes to art school but needed the money so took a waitressing job at Fawlty Towers, though she usually contributes to anything that needs to be done. Basil goes to her whenever he has a gigantic problem, and he trusts that she can fix it, as in 'Communication Problems' (he won money on a horse after Sybil had told him not to bet) and 'The Kipper and the Corpse' (Polly has to keep the body of a guest out of the view of the other guests and explain to the dead man's business partners what has happened to him).
Polly Sherman was played by Connie Booth, John Cleese's first wife (of three). Her character is the voice of reason in this otherwise off-the-wall comedy, and therefore disappears behind the others to a certain extent. Her superb acting is not necessarily noticed or commented upon because she doesn't rant like Basil, harass like Sybil, and doesn't get beaten like Manuel. She's just about as normal as they come, and it is her character that lends a bit of reality to Fawlty Towers.
The Front Sign
The front sign, although not a human character, does seem to have a life of its own. It only behaved itself in one episode, the first, and after that was continually changing. The show is determined to make its audience laugh from the very first shot, including signs with the messages
- 'Warty Towels' ('Gourmet Night'; season 1. episode 5)
- 'Watery Fowls' (and we see a young boy altering the letters!) ('The Psychiatrist'; 2.2)
- 'Flay Otters' ('Waldorf Salad'; 2.3)
- 'Fatty Owls' ('The Kipper and the Corpse'; 2.4)
... and two others that are too rude to repeat here.
If you look at the episodes, they're almost all fuelled by the fact that [Basil] is trying to hide something very, very basic from Sybil. [He's] fundamentally terrified of his wife.'
- John Cleese, commenting on Basil Fawlty's character.
In fact, most men seem to be terrified of Sybil; she's a very domineering and strong-willed person. Even incapacitated in a hospital bed with an ingrown toenail, she can still bring her husband's raving to heel with an ear-piercingly shrill 'Basil!.
John Cleese once observed that most sitcoms suffer padding, so each Fawlty Towers episode was written to be as packed as possible. They each took nearly six weeks to write (and an average of ten revisions) and a week to film. Nearly an hour was spent editing each minute of the programme, and a cut was made on average every four seconds.
The series ran for two seasons (only 12 episodes) on BBC2; the first season premiered in 1975 and the second in 1979. It has since stretched to over 70 countries and its video collection had sold 1.5 million copies by 1995. The 30-minute episodes3 are still extremely popular.
Season One (19 September, 1975 - 24 October, 1975)
After John Cleese had decided to leave Monty Python in 1973, he was approached by Jimmy Gilbert on behalf of the BBC, and asked if he would write a series for them. With the absence of Monty Python in his life, he naturally agreed, and with the addition of Connie Booth to his life, she naturally co-wrote and co-starred with him. Drawing on their experiences at that hotel a few years before, their creativity gave birth to Fawlty Towers.
'A Touch Of Class' (19 September, 1975) - This, the first-ever Fawlty Towers, serves as an introduction to the characters. Basil runs around like a fool, trying to make their new guest, Lord Melbury, happy, when Polly informs Basil that 'Lord' Melbury is an impostor. Basil doesn't believe her until he sees Melbury's brick-filled briefcase for himself. In a mad fit, he drives away the actual royal guests who have just arrived.
'The Builders' (26 September, 1975) - The hotel needs some construction, so Basil calls Mr O'Reily. Mr O'Reily does cheap work: this is why Basil wants him, which is why Sybil would rather have Mr Stubbs do the construction. When Basil returns home, the renovations by Mr O'Reily have gone all wrong. They've got to fix it before Sybil returns home and finds that O'Reily instead of Stubbs did the work.
'The Wedding Party' (3 October, 1975) - Basil refuses to let a young couple book a double room because he doesn't believe that they are married. Of course, when Manuel gets drunk on his birthday and professes loudly to Basil in the corridor that he loves him, and the affections of a French antique dealer come to a head, Basil appears anything but innocent himself...
'The Hotel Inspectors' (10 October, 1975) - When Basil hears rumours that hotel inspectors are in town, he tries to figure out which of his guests are the inspectors. After making a few wrong assumptions, he is caught by the actual inspectors trying to get back at one of his guests.
'Gourmet Night' (17 October, 1975) - Basil decides to host a 'gourmet night' for some well-known figures in the area, but when the chef gets drunk, Basil has to call in a favour from a local restaurant. Instead of lobster, his guests have one choice: duck.
'The Germans' (24 October, 1975) - While Sybil is in the hospital with an ingrown toenail, Basil has to run the hotel himself. But today is the day for the fire drill. It seems to be progressing decently, until Manuel sets the kitchen on fire and Basil gets knocked out by the fire extinguisher. He escapes from the hospital (with a concussion) to return to the hotel and deal with a party of Germans who have just arrived. He makes the prudent decision not to mention the war, but of course now he cannot help it, and his constant chatter drives one of the Germans to tears.
Season Two (19 February, 1979 - 25 October, 1979)
John Cleese and Coonie Booth, married for the first season of Fawlty Towers, had divorced each other the year before its second season began. Despite this, they still wrote and worked together on the series, and the material didn't suffer from any bad feelings that may have been going around.
'Communication Problems' (19 February, 1979) - Basil bets on a horse (after Sybil had forbidden him to bet anymore), and actually wins - a whole £75. He's got to hide the money from Sybil, and succeeds with Polly's help... until an old hard-of-hearing guest named Mrs Richards4 has to go and lose her money - a whole £85. When Sybil finds both sets of money at the same time and a vase appears with £95 inside, Basil has some explaining to do...
'The Psychiatrist' (26 February, 1979) - When Basil finds out that a psychiatrist is staying in his hotel, he drives himself mad trying to appear normal and not mention sex. At the same time in the hotel, however, a Mr Johnson is secretly smuggling a girl up to his room and Basil can't keep his nose out of it, and while changing the light-bulb for an Australian guest, his hand ends up where it shouldn't be (just as his wife walks in).
'Waldorf Salad' (5 March, 1979) - An obnoxious American and his English wife arrive at the hotel late, and Basil accepts a £20 bribe to keep the kitchen open - before he asks the chef. Of course, the chef doesn't want to work after hours, and Basil is left to do the food preparation.
'The Kipper And The Corpse' (12 March, 1979) - Every hotel owner's worst fear is to have a guest die during the night... When a guest dies at Fawlty Towers, Basil doesn't know what to do. The body is moved from room to room and from hiding place to hiding place all day, trying to keep the news from the other guests, until the dead man's colleagues appear for a meeting. Polly is nominated to explain.
'The Anniversary' (26 March, 1979) - Sybil assumes that Basil has forgotten their 15th wedding anniversary, and in a huff drives away. Of course, Basil actually has remembered this time, and has invited many friends over to celebrate. When he realises that she isn't coming back any time soon, he gets Polly to play a sick Sybil confined to her bed. Then the real Sybil arrives.
'Basil The Rat' (25 October, 19795) - The Public Health Inspector comes by and gives Basil one day to bring the hotel up to a decent level. While in Manuel's room enlisting his help, Basil sees Manuel's 'Filigree Siberian Hamster' - a rat - and orders it out of the building. Manuel can't bear to part with it, however, so Polly hides it outside in a shed. When it escapes the next day, a rat-hunt ensues.
The Last Fawlty Towers
The first episode of ground-breaking satirical comedy Not the Nine O'Clock News featured a sketch in which John Cleese speaks to a TV executive, refusing to do another series of Fawlty Towers (he suggests they make a 'tacky revue' instead). Although produced after the final episode of Fawlty Towers, this sketch was in fact broadcast first due to the delays caused by the BBC strike of 1979.
Today's Fawlty Towers
Fawlty Towers continually ranks at the top whenever a group or organisation lists the best British comedy series of all time - in 2000, the British Film Institute labelled the programme Best-Ever Comedy Series, and even more recently, Yahoo News ranked Fawlty Towers the second-best 'cult' TV series of all time (it came in second to Doctor Who).
Because of its immense success, there have been multitudes of attempts to reproduce it for other country's audiences. In the United States, for instance, a series called Amanda's was produced in 1983. However, they wrote out the part of Basil, elevated the Sybil character (now played by future Golden Girl Bea Arthur) to central status. Unsurprisingly, it only lasted for six episodes.
When questioned about the production of the episode 'The Germans', from Fawlty Towers' first season, Catherine Powell, the BBC manager who brokered the deal, said: 'The scenes with the Germans will not be remade. It wouldn't be that funny'6. In the Germans episode, Basil subjects a group of German guests to a tireless tirade about the War; it is very entertaining for British audiences, but not very 'politically correct', and it wouldn't be very convincing coming from a German. 'You can't imagine any other country making that in the same way', Powell continued. 'Even in Britain, you wouldn't see the same thing today.'
Unfortunately, only one episode, starring Jochen Busse and Claudia Rieschel as Viktor and Helga (the German versions of Basil and Sybil), was ever made, as it was considered too expensive.
While there will only ever be 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers, manufacturers are still making lots of money with books and rereleases of the Fawlty Towers episodes. A DVD set of three discs that includes all of the episodes and other special features was released by BBC America in 2001, for example. The episodes are digitally remastered, and the set includes interviews with John Cleese, Prunella Scales, and Andrew Sachs; director's commentary; out-takes; and more. That Fawlty Towers is still succeeding over 35 years later is a testament to its enduring comedy.